Organizational culture definition, content and process of socialization or acculturation

1. Culture Formally Defined

The culture of a group can now be defined as a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.

Culture by this definition tends toward patterning and integration. But a given group may not have the kind of learning experiences that allow it to evolve a culture in this sense. There may be major turnover in lead­ers or members, the mission or primary task may change, the underlying technology on which the group is built may evolve, or the group may split into subgroups that develop their own subcultures leading to what Joanne Martin and her colleagues define as differentiated cultures and/or fragmented cultures (Martin, 2002).

We all know of groups, organizations, and societies where there are beliefs and values that work at cross purposes with other beliefs and values leading to situations full of conflict and ambiguity. But if the con­cept of culture is to have any utility, it should draw our attention to those things that are the product of our human need for stability, consistency, and meaning. Culture formation, therefore, is always, by definition, a striv­ing toward patterning and integration, even though in many groups, their actual history of experiences prevents them from ever achieving a clear- cut unambiguous paradigm.

2. Culture Content

If a group’s culture is that group’s accumulated learning, how do we describe and catalogue the content of that learning? Group and organizational theo­ries distinguish two major sets of problems that all groups, no matter what their size, must deal with: (1) Survival, growth, and adaptation in their environment; and (2) Internal integration that permits daily functioning and the ability to adapt and learn. Both of these areas of group functioning will reflect the macrocultural context in which the group exists and from which are derived broader and deeper basic assumptions about the nature of reality, time, space, human nature, and human relationships. Each of these areas will be explained in detail in later chapters.

3. The Process of Socialization or Acculturation

After a group has a culture, it will pass elements of this culture on to new generations of group members (Louis, 1980; Schein, 1968; Van Maanen, 1976; Van Maanen and Schein, 1979). Studying what new members of groups are taught is, in fact, a good way to discover some of the elements of a culture, but we only learn about surface aspects of the culture by this means. This is especially so because much of what is at the heart of a culture will not be revealed in the rules of behavior taught to newcomers. It will only be revealed to members as they gain permanent status and are allowed into the inner circles of the group where group secrets then are shared.

On the other hand, how people learn and the socialization processes to which they are subjected may indeed reveal deeper assumptions. To get at those deeper levels, we must try to understand the perceptions and feel­ings that arise in critical situations, and we must observe and interview regular members or “old timers” to get an accurate sense of the deeper-level assumptions that are shared.

Can culture be learned through anticipatory socialization or self­socialization? Can new members discover for themselves what the basic assumptions are? Yes and no. We certainly know that one of the major activities of any new member when she or he enters a new group is to deci­pher the operating norms and assumptions. But this deciphering can only be successful through the rewards and punishments that are meted out by old members to new members as they experiment with different kinds of behavior. In this sense, there is always a teaching process going on, even though it may be quite implicit and unsystematic.

If the group does not have shared assumptions, as will sometimes be the case, the new members ’ interaction with old members will be a more creative process of building a culture. But once shared assumptions exist, the culture survives through teaching them to newcomers. In this regard, culture is a mechanism of social control and can be the basis of explicitly manipulating members into perceiving, thinking, and feeling in certain ways (Van Maanen and Kunda, 1989; Kunda, 1992). Whether or not we approve of this as a mechanism of social control is a separate question that will be addressed later.

4. Can Culture Be Inferred from Only Behavior?

Note that the definition of culture that I have given does not include overt behavior patterns, though some such behavior, especially formal rituals, would reflect cultural assumptions. Instead, this definition emphasizes that the shared assumptions deal with how we perceive, think about, and feel about things. We cannot rely on overt behavior alone because it is always determined both by the cultural predisposition (the perceptions, thoughts, and feelings that are patterned) and by the situational contingencies that arise from the immediate external environment.

Behavioral regularities can occur for reasons other than culture. For example, if we observe that all members of a group cower in the presence of a large and loud leader, this could be based on biological reflex reactions to sound and size, individual learning, or shared learn­ing. Such a behavioral regularity should not, therefore, be the basis for defining culture, though we might later discover that, in a given group’s experience, cowering is indeed a result of shared learning and therefore a manifestation of deeper shared assumptions. Or, to put it another way, when we observe behavioral regularities, we do not know whether or not we are dealing with a cultural manifestation. Only after we have discov­ered the deeper layers that I am defining as the essence of culture can we specify what is and what is not an “artifact” that reflects the culture.

5. Do Occupations Have Cultures?

The definition provided previously does not specify the size or location of the social unit to which it can legitimately be applied. We know that nations, ethnic groups, religions, and other kinds of social units have cul­tures in this sense. I called these macrocultures. Our experience with large organizations also tells us that even globally dispersed corporations such as IBM or Unilever have corporate cultures in spite of the obvious presence of many diverse subcultures within the larger organization.

But it is not clear whether it makes sense to say that medicine or law or accounting or engineering have cultures. If culture is a product of joint learning leading to shared assumptions about how to perform and relate internally, then we can see clearly that many occupations do evolve cul­tures. If there is strong socialization during the education and training period and if the beliefs and values learned during this time remain stable as taken-for-granted assumptions even though the person may not be in a group of occupational peers, then clearly those occupations have cultures. For most of the occupations that will concern us, these cultures are global to the extent that members are trained in the same way to the same skill set and values. However, we will find that macrocultures also influence how occupations are defined, that is, how engineering or medicine is practiced in a particular country. These variations make it that much more difficult to decipher in a hospital, for example, what is national, ethnic, occupa­tional, or organizational.

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition.

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